Japanese men usually don’t have beards because they don’t match Japan’s obsession with the concept of seiketsukan, which can roughly be translated as a ‘sharp-dressed’ look into English. This concept of seiketsukan is a very important factor of Japanese society. Let’s take a deeper look.
The simple answer to why men in Japan don’t have beards
Men in Japan don’t have beards because facial hair is thought to be somewhat unsanitary or ‘not proper’. Having a beard in Japan can give people a bad first impression of you because you will appear to lack the proper drive to properly groom yourself by the standards of Japanese society.
This standard is…pretty complicated. Throughout this article I would like to explain some key concepts to understanding this stigma against facial hair such as seiketsukan (清潔感), and also the Japanese concepts of enryo (restraint), shikkari suru (to act in a ‘proper’ manner), and recount some of my experiences dealing with these concepts in Japan’s new graduate hiring system.
The history of beards in Japan, and why samurai had beards but modern Japanese men don’t
It’s true, and somewhat ironic. Historically speaking the samurai of Japan’s Edo period had facial hair. It was seen as a sense of power and masculinity, and many samurai who were unable to grow beards would use fake beards.
Very, very ironic!
In fact, one of the most prominent figures of Japanese history , Hideyoshi Toyotomi, famous for unifying Japan in the 16th century, famously used a fake beard.
He used a fake beard as a metaphorical beard to hide the fact that he couldn’t grow a beard. Now THAT’S some irony, and pretty hilarious.
As the Tokugawa shogunate of the Edo period maintained more stable control, the government would become a “civilian government”, known as bunchi-seiji (文治政治), where public morals would become a higher priority. As samurai were the ruling class, lower classes were expected to distance themselves in appearance by shaving off all facial hair. From the middle of the 17th century, the central government would issue a ban on all facial hair for samurai as well, with the goal of upholding a more consistent public moral value, as well as maintaining more control over the samurai ruling class. Many ronin (A samurai without a ruling lord) had begun to resort to bandit behavior and piracy, and the central shogunate attempted to instill a new moral standard to hurt the image of the traditional ‘rebel’ samurai by banning facial hair.
All the girls like those bad rebel samurai. Oh, with their rebellious face-rags. OOH! So improper!
This moral value really took, apparently, because people still feel the same way regarding facial hair in Japan several centuries later.
To further understand why this a ‘moral value’ in Japan, let’s look at the Japanese concept of seiketsukan.
What ‘seiketsukan’ means, and why Japanese men don’t have beards.
Seiketsukan is one of those words that justifies itself in Japanese. Japanese men don’t have beards because of the importance of the concept of seiketsukan. Seiketsukan is important because…seiketsukan is important! It’s classic circular logic. Japanese men don’t have beards, because not having a beard satisfies this desire to conform to seiketsukan culture…and a really big part of this idea of seiketsukan is that men don’t have beards! Get it?
Stop thinking! Stop it!
Okay, okay… so what does seiketsukan really mean? And how does it relate to beard culture in Japan?
As I had written above, ‘seiketsukan’ is probably best translated into English as something like the feeling someone projects from being sharp-dressed. However, this doesn’t fully capture the exact nuance of seiketsukan, and why Japanese men choosing to not grow beards is a good example for how this word is used. I have talked before about the importance of demonstrating intention in Japanese society. In the very first article I ever wrote for this site, I talked about the importance of not only exercising restraint (Enryo (遠慮) in Japanese),
but also the importance of demonstrating your intention to exercise restraint. In Japan, the most important factors which people are judged by in society are their ability to persevere and show effort, understand their surroundings, and demonstrate proper intentions. It isn’t enough to be polite. It is essential to demonstrate your intention to be polite as well.At least, in my experience this has certainly been the case. One reason why Japanese men don’t have beards in Japan, is because it demonstrates an intention to show great effort in maintaining their sense of seiketsukan for those around them. This may sound very academic, but I truly believe this social dynamic is engrained not only into the language and the way people speak, but also in the overall subconscious of the population. In the west, many people would describe this as conformity, but I don’t think people in Japan see it this way. It is more about demonstrating one’s willingness to meet a societal standard, than feeling the need to stifle one’s own individuality.
Japanese men don’t have beards because they are trying to show their willingness to strive towards the standard of seiketsukan
In short, Japanese men don’t have beards, because choosing to shave one’s beard well is demonstrating their intention to to strive for a higher sense of seiketsukan, which can be somewhat crudely translated as a sense of being sharp dressed, or a ‘feeling of personal hygiene’. In fact, when asked why they don’t like beards in this video by YouTuber That Japanese Man Yuta, many…many Japanese women simply answered “because there’s no feeling of seiketsukan“.
It doesn’t get much easier than that to find material for these articles, folks!
Try listening for the word ‘seiketsukan’
The concept of ‘shikkari shiteiru’, and my experience encountering this ‘seiketsukan’ standard while job hunting in Japan
I encountered this concept of seiketsukan while I was going through the Japanese new-university-graduate job hunting system in Japan as well. This new graduate hiring system (known as shukatsu 就活) in Japanese, takes all of the extreme elements of Japanese culture, and expands them to even more monumental proportions. There is a standard of human that is uniform and well-established, and student in the country is trying to fill the shoes of this imagined impossible ideal. Going through this system as a foreigner is a pretty strange experience, and is something that I can’t recommend approaching from the same angle as other Japanese students. The reason for this being that the entire job hunting system is designed with the Japanese ideal in mind. However, in order to fully understand what I’m getting at, first you need to understand the common Japanese phrase that is shikkari suru (しっかりする).
The concept of shikkari suru, and how it relates to seiketsukan and beard culture in Japan
If you live in Japan and have conversations in Japanese, something you will often hear is the phrase shikkari suru, which can (maybe?) be translated into English as “To do things properly and with the utmost effort”. This means to imply that there is a set standard, seeing as there is perceived existence of a ‘proper’ means of carrying out any action. This idea exists everywhere in Japan, which is a deal-breaker and reason why many expats eventually leave the country, I think. There seems to be a set rule for how to everything. How to walk, how to wait in line, what to wear on any given month of the year, what food to eat when and with who…etc etc, and yes, a rule that states that Japanese men (any especially young men in Japan) should not grow facial hair. The list could go on and on. Like most things in Japan, this ends up being a double-edged sword. The extreme perfectionism that permeates every inch of Japan’s culture results in a country full of incredibly competent, respectful, and humble people. The flip side of this is that people obviously live under a high amount of social pressure from those around them on a day-to-day basis. I don’t think there is any denying that. This is the reality of life in Japan. So how does this relate to the reasons why Japanese men don’t grow beards?
Well, when job hunting in Japan, every single movement, every action is made with the intent of showing your intention to shikkari suru, meaning to attend to each possible matter in a proper manner. This is most apparent in the standard people have on applicant’s appearance. I went through this system as a male, so I’m going to be writing from a man’s perspective, although the standards for women are just as strict (if not more strict.)
When going through job hunting, to be clean shaven is a measure of one’s own effort towards their appearance. To have a slim-fitting suit is a measure of one’s own effort to find a proper tailor and live a healthy lifestyle. To have straight black hair is a measure of one’s own effort to groom themselves properly before an interview. To have proper posture throughout an interview is a measure of one’s own willingness to persevere through pain and discomfort (also known as to gaman, another core concept to understanding the way people think in Japan), to memorize the 50 different set-movements one must perform to be able to properly enter a room, introduce themselves, and begin an interview in the first place…is a measure of whether or not someone is shikkari shiteiru or not, and whether or not they carry with them not only the sense of proper seiketsukan, but also an awareness for those around them. So, being clean shaven is just one piece of this puzzle. In Japan, men don’t have beards, because beards give other people the image that they might not be willing to go through the trouble of properly (shikkari suru) grooming themselves.
If Takeshi-sans not willing to properly groom himself, how can I ever trust Takeshi-san with my wife!?
So that’s what I need to succeed in Japan? Just follow all of these steps? Oh, and don’t have a beard in Japan too, right?
So, you have to demonstrate your drive and passion towards the company and those around you, right? And you need to learn how to persevere through hardship…oh and and you need to have a small intellectual frame, straight black hair, and the appearance of an all-around ideal Japanese male stereotype to succeed? Got it!
In conclusion; The reason why Japanese men typically don’t have beards or other kinds of facial hair
In japan there are a number of societal standards that are adhered to in order to demonstrate one’s willingness to achieve harmony with those around them. One of these standards is of seiketsukan, which is difficult to fully translate into English, but means something similar to the ‘feeling someone projects from being sharp-dressed’, or a ‘feeling of cleanliness’. When being interviewed, Japanese women overwhelmingly responded that they don’t like men who have beards because these men don’t project a good sense of seiketsukan. Put simply, it’s very difficult to ‘look sharp’ by a Japanese standard with facial hair, which is why most Japanese men choose to not grow a beard. By choosing to take on the attitude of properly maintaining, or shikkari shiteiru towards their own appearance, Japanese men are attempting to show a higher-than-average willingness to fit in harmoniously with their surroundings.
In Japan, effort to restrain one’s immediate desires (enryo 遠慮) for the good of both yourself and the immediate group is an obvious component to day-to-day life, which can result in a tendency to resort to circular logic in terms of social standard. For example, seiketsukan is good, because a person with proper seiketsukan is somebody who properly grooms themselves, whereas somebody who properly grooms themselves is somebody who has a strong seiketsukan. This logic can also be applied to why Japanese men avoid facial hair. It’s circular logic, with the goal of maintaining a certain sense of communal cohesion. This effort to maintain harmonious cohesion within the society has resulted in a higher frequency of occurrences of these kinds of ‘circular’ societal standards, which are often justified in and of themselves.
A proper Japanese man has a good sense of seiketsukan. A proper sense of seiketsukan is not compatible with having a beard.